Will Anyone Dare Tell the Emperor That He Goes Around Naked?

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it, so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.”--Jonathan Swift “Facts are a stubborn thing”--John Adams “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” --Donald Trump in The Art of the Deal

T
ruthful hyperbole” as defined in the last quote above by Donald Trump may go a long way in explaining, at least partially, why he won the presidency.

It is a formula by which one gives oneself permission to lie. Truth is not objective, it is not determined by the stubborn facts out there staring me in the face, whether I like them or not, but what I say it is, what is convenient and useful for me at the moment. This is the mind-set that is convinced that the end always justifies the means, no matter how reprehensible those means are.

It also explains the success of a used car salesman. This is a great car, you will be very happy with it; it’s a winner of a car. You will get tired of being a winner with this car. And so the car gets handly sold. The unpleasant surprise will come later when the unfortunate client realizes that he has been sold a lemon by a con-man.

The metaphor of the used car explains what happened a few days ago to all those who voted for Trump and expected a replacement of Obama Care. Yes, a replacement was presented by the GPO legislators but what it misguidedly proposed was to deduct 900 billion dollars from health benefits to the poor and transfer them to the rich in the form of tax relief.

Intriguing too the fact that Trump did not put his name on the bill. He refused to dub it Trump care. That would have been appropriate given that Obamacare was invented as an insult of sorts; the proper name of the original bill was and remains Affordable Health Care Act. The aim of the Republicans in the last seven years has been to make it unaffordable and a mere privilege for the well-to-do.

Be that as it may, the first legislative act of Donald Trump, the Health Bill that would have replaced Obama Care went down in flames and proved to be a big loser. Only 17% of the people approved of it. But the used car salesman is still enthusiastically selling his used cars by telling those disappointed voters that the car they presently still owe (that is, Obama Care) is a lemon and will soon explode in their face. Then they will be left with nothing and will have to walk to work. You get the picture: after it explodes, come back to me and I have a used car to sell you.

Let’s now briefly analyze this concept of “truthful hyperbole” under the light of the philosophical branch of philosophy called “epistemology,” that is to say: the investigation of how do we get to know anything and how do we know if what we do actually know is true or false; in short, how do we know that we know. Ultimately it is the question by cynical Pilate: What is truth?

It should be quite obvious that Trump’s conception of truth is quite elastic. Even relativism wouldn’t fit very well. Relativism says that everything is relative to the situation and the society in which one finds oneself; that truth is not something transcendent outside of time and space, but has to be determined existentially in the context of the real world in which we live and have our being. Truthful hyperbole, on the other hand, says that truth is what I wish you to believe. It really didn’t rain during my inauguration, even though the evidence is still on the ground and there are pictures with their umbrellas open, the crowds were more numerous at my inauguration than at President Obama’s, even though there are pictures that prove the opposite. I lost the popular vote by 3 million votes but I want you to believe that 3 million illegal aliens voted illegally. I want you to believe that Senator Cruz’s father was linked to Kennedy’s assassination, that president Obama tapped my phone during my campaign for the presidency; and the list goes on and on.

Recently Trump held an interview with Time’s Michael Scherer where he explains that instead of weighing evidence he much prefers to trust his gut. As Trump put it: “I am an instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.” The question arises: how does one make instinctual decisions based on instinctual beliefs? With Trump there are three possibilities: one, he is already correct to begin with, or two, he will be proven correct at some point in the immediate or remote future, or three, he will correct the record of the past saying that he already subscribed to whatever view is proven right now; to wit, the Iraq War. In other words, when confronted with statements made without evidence, Trump will simply respond that what happened retroactively more than justifies the claims he made. That is to say, lies are magically transformed into truths after the fact. All you need is the magic wand called “instinctual decision making.”

If this again sounds like a used car salesman, it is because it is that, even though Trump wants us to believe that he is similar to the scholarly historian revising his judgment after studying the facts carefully, but he is no scholar even if he went to the Warton School of Business (another trumped up fact) and he certainly does not respects facts.

What Trump has discovered in his business career is that while truth may be real, it may be to one’s short-term advantage to disown it and present a contrary claim. To support those claims there is plenty of biased press on cable TV to tell him that he is always right. Fox news is an example; so it The National Inquirer which he reads dutifully.

Mussolini came to believe that “Mussolini is always right!” That is to say, falsehood works much better for Trump and other assorted authoritarian personalities and dictators, and the fact that they sit at the pinnacle of power more than confirms it for them.

But this is far from being an original insight. As the initial quote above by the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, intimates, it is an age-old stratagem of all dishonest and manipulative people. Eventually, as Plato and Aristotle pointed out, the truth catches up, even after the damage has been done.

One can of course continue to sell used lemon cars as a successful business entrepreneur and accumulate wealth and even fame, and call it “art,” or one may, as an entertainer and expert in reality shows, rely on selective TV-edited reality, and people are usually willing to suspend their disbelief while they enjoy the show. One may continue to trust only the stories, like those in the National Inquirer, which affirm one’s biases and prejudices, but the “stubborn facts,” as John Adams put in in his defense of British soldiers who had to defend themselves against a mob, remain therefore incontrovertible, and will give pause to a wise man to make him aware of his limitations and the constraints imposed on one’s likes and dislikes by a reality-based truth.

Not so for Trump. He disregards rational consensus by experts and acts on emotions and guts. This is found liberating by many people, including Vice-president Pence who goes around praising the fact that Trump “tells it like it is.” They have never seen before the kind of president who simply disregards expertise and relies on instincts. It’s a strange marvelous phenomenon. But here the question arises: are issues of national security, say the initiation of World War III, to be decided on instincts?

Of course the confirmation of one’s biases comes easy to someone like a Caligula who was constantly surrounded by sycophants who served at his pleasure, catered to every one of his whims, who interpreted every criticism of the emperor as bad faith. He may even begin to think of himself as a demigod and have his guards kneel before him, even kiss his ass from time to time. We know what happened to Caligula.

In more democratic times a different scenario may ensue. Now presidents have to resist the temptation to think of themselves as demigods by relying on longtime friends and confidants. Those friends usually keep them grounded in reality so that they don’t end up saying that 2+2=5 because I the president say so. At that point, the only solution in enlightened democratic times is impeachment, or resignation, or perhaps an ambulance to the insane asylum, or perhaps to jail.

Adams had it on target. Facts are a stubborn thing. They tend to catch up with one’s lies and fantasies. The urgent question now is this: will enough journalists find the courage to do their job--which is that of searching for the truth--and have the backbone to shout to the four winds that “the emperor is naked?”

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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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